I sometimes wonder if we're running the risk of forgetting how similar the stories of those who came to the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century are to many of today's immigrants. We like to think that arriving in the U.S. means instant American Dream, but for many, it's a life of fear, secrecy, discrimination, and low-wage work.
One writer whose story is often overlooked, is that of Carlos Bulosan (1911?-1956), who came to the United States from the Philippines. A dedicated reader, Bulosan completed a book a day. He translated his passion for the written word into poetry and prose.
Perhaps his most celebrated work is his memoir, America is in the Heart, published in 1946, which details his experiences of work, love, and life in California. Bulosan is the outsider’s outsider who does not feel a sense of belonging, even within certain ethnic subgroups. No matter how much he may yearn for his family and his home country, Bulosan cannot return to the Philippines, due to violence and threats to his personal safety. Yet, America has not been the safe, comfortable dream he had hoped for. Instead, his experience of America is that of a series of menial jobs, short-term friendships, jail, marginalization, and economic insecurity.
Bulosan describes his mindset during the first years of life in the U.S. as one of confusion and defiance. He feels himself to be voiceless and powerless, and the world around him refuses to acknowledge his viewpoint. He dislikes the labels society has put in place, and in one instance, while he is working at a restaurant in Buellton, California, he reacts: “When a Filipino and a white woman came to the restaurant to eat and were refused, I flung my apron away and attacked the headwaiter with my fists” (America is in the Heart).
He was fired. No one bothered to ask, however, why he erupted in anger. Some of the history of Filipinos in the U.S. can be found at an online exhibit for Carlos Bulosan.
Bulosan writes to inform readers of the experiences of Filipino immigrants, and the sadness that accompanies a longing for home. Bulosan believes he has a common bond with other immigrants – he describes a conversation with a French immigrant who became sad upon hearing the wind through peach trees because it reminded him of the sounds of his native Normandy. There are life lessons to be learned in this. One of the most compelling is that bonds are remarkably difficult to forge once one considers oneself ostracized or outgrouped.
Yet, it is precisely the sense of longing, nostalgia, loneliness, and the seeming randomness of one’s own existence that unites individuals. Bulosan speaks to the fact that individuals can find kindred spirits and thus bond in that way. S
hort Answer Questions: Carlos Bulosan
1. How did the author’s environment affect his mindset?
2. What community has the author identified himself with, and how?
3. How did the author’s ethnic background influence his mindset?
4. Why did the author continue to work at trying to rehabilitate his brother when he admits that he felt that it was futile?
5. Explain the stereotyping that accompanied the author’s brother and the effect on both his brother’s and his own life.
6. Although Carlos seemed to have a sense of loyalty to his brother, Amado did not seem to share the same sense of loyalty. How did Amado’s sense of connection with a particular group or community effect where his loyalties lied?
7. Why would a man who came to America to make his fortune, and apparently succeeded, advise Carlos to go back home?
8. Why wouldn’t the author take the man’s advice and go home even when he was continuously discriminated against in the US?
9. List all of the ways in which the author and others of his same ethnicity were discriminated against in this reading.
For more information and instructional materials, please contact Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. and Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D.